Monday 13 February 2017

The Franchise after Brexit - Questions for Holyrood


Yesterday evening a discussion emerged on what I suppose we should call "Scottish Twitter" about the extent to which non-British EU citizens might influence the result of any second referendum on Scottish independence. There are about 181k such citizens currently in Scotland according to the Scottish Parliamentary Information Centre (SPICe)'s data. In the last referendum, it was widely considered that this group leaned towards No, motivated in part by the fact that leaving the UK could have interrupted, even if only temporarily, Scotland's place in the European Union and would have affected the legal basis on which many of those people had come to settle in Scotland.

A little over two years on, and a great deal has changed. Scotland voted for the UK to remain in the EU, but the UK as a whole did not. We still do not have clarity as to what impact this will have on the rights of EU citizens that live here, or indeed those that had been considering moving to the UK in the future.

Neil Lovatt, a member of the Advisory Board of the political pressure group "Scotland in Union", questioned the relevance of the views of EU citizens in any future independence referendum, since "post Brexit they certainly won't" "be getting a vote".

I do not wish to delve into the politics of this statement, though my views on the franchise are, I think, fairly clear. I take a very permissive view of who should be allowed to vote, and think it a mistake to restrict it on the basis of citizenship. I take the view that any adult ordinarily resident in a relevant territory should be allowed to participate in the political process by voting in elections or referendums.

I do wish, however, to clear-up the legal terrain that underpins how the franchise works. I have written before about the franchise as it relates to prisoners, and more broadly about who gets to decide what the franchise is. It is very easy to lose sight of why the UK lets certain people vote in certain elections but not others.

General Aspects of the Right to Vote in the UK

The UK Parliament has been responsible for setting the general terms of the franchise in the United Kingdom. The first thing to recognise is that the UK does not limit the franchise only to British citizens. Voting rights exist for "qualifying Commonwealth citizens" (which includes but is not restricted to, British citizens) and citizens of the Republic of Ireland. A "qualifying" Commonwealth citizen is one who either does not require leave to remain, or who has leave to remain, in the United Kingdom. This allows nationals of over fifty sovereign states, and those holding nationality connected either with British Overseas Territories or Crown Dependencies to participate in all UK elections. The UK therefore takes, in many respects, a more permissive stance on citizenship than other countries do. The right to vote in Canadian federal elections, for instance, is restricted exclusively to Canadian citizens.

The EU dimension

However, the issue is given an additional layer of complexity by virtue of our membership of the European Union. Under Article 22 TEU:

"Every citizen of the Union residing in a Member State of which he is not a national shall have the right to vote and to stand as a candidate at municipal elections in the Member State in which he resides, under the same conditions as nationals of that State"

This is supplemented by Directive 94/80/EC, which regulates and imposes some limits upon this general obligation.

It is worth pointing out that this obligation only applies to "municipal elections". Nevertheless the UK has chosen to extend the right to vote in devolved elections, to the Holyrood, Senned and Stormont legislative bodies, in addition to those relating to local authorities. This is because the franchise for those bodies was originally determined with direct reference to the entitlement to vote in local authority elections.

Implications for Scotland's elections

The result of this is that EU citizens living in Scotland have the right to vote in Holyrood elections. Since the passage of the Scotland Act 2016, the Scottish Parliament has gained legislative competence over its franchise and those of Scottish local authority elections. It could, if it wishes, choose to extend or restrict the right to vote in a way that departs from the prior position under UK electoral law. It has already done this with respect to the minimum age someone must attain before they can vote, cutting it from 18 to 16 ahead of the most recent set of Scottish Parliamentary elections. This power is constrained, however, by the imposition of a new "super-majority" requirement. To modify the franchise for Parliamentary elections, at least two-thirds of the whole Parliament must vote in favour of it.

When the UK leaves the European Union, the requirement to implement the EU Treaty and Directive provisions in relation to the right to vote will likely elapse (unless the withdrawal agreement under Article 50 stipulates otherwise). This would potentially render the words "relevant citizen of the Union", which are inserted into the Representation of the People Act 1983, ineffective for the purposes of the franchise, since the Treaties would no longer apply to the UK.

This does not prevent the Scottish Parliament, however, from implementing legislation to preserve those rights. It would be open to them to pass a law including EU citizens in the franchise again, or indeed to enfranchise any other group, whether or not they were citizens of a particular country.

What about referendums?

Where things get even further complicated still is in the area of referendums. The UK does not have a prior set of restrictions on who can vote in a referendum. Instead, the legislation that provides for a referendum must itself define who can participate.

In the first independence referendum, the question who may vote was a matter for the Scottish Parliament. Indeed, specific legislation was introduced during that referendum campaign to make provision to allow for the registration of younger electors so they would be on the register in time to vote if they were only 16 or 17 on polling day. At that time the electoral roll did not include some of these people because they would not have been 18 at the next relevant election, and that was the prevailing minimum age in UK law to vote.

Even if it is the case that under EU law Scotland is required to allow EU citizens to vote in Holyrood elections (and that is doubtful as they are not, incontestably, "municipal" elections) it is plainly not the case that it is required that they are allowed to vote in referendums. EU law stipulates no conditions there. Nevertheless, the Scottish Parliament took the position that no one who was allowed to vote in a Holyrood election should be excluded from voting in the independence referendum. They, quite simply, chose to set the franchise that way. EU citizens were therefore permitted to vote.

Equally, however, in the EU referendum, the United Kingdom Parliament took the position that the franchise should be the same as it was for UK General Elections. It therefore included Commonwealth citizens, but excluded a freestanding right to vote for those who were EU citizens.

So what does it matter in a future referendum?

The issue at hand is what would the situation be in a future independence referendum. If the UK leaves the European Union, the default position is likely to be that EU citizens will lose their Treaty-derived right to vote in any UK elections.

There is a related issue, however. The Scottish Parliament does not clearly have the legislative competence to hold an independence referendum without the UK Parliament granting it such a power. Last time, that power was granted without any legal conditions imposed on what the franchise would be. The Edinburgh Agreement proceeded on the basis of political consensus that, at least, the Scottish Parliament's franchise should be used as the starting point and that the Scottish Parliament should decide after its consultation whether and to what extent it should be expanded on the grounds of age. It should be pointed out, though, that in 2012, the Scottish Parliament's franchise was set by the UK Parliament so letting the Scottish Parliament set the franchise for the referendum at all was an innovation and constrained by a set of constitutional norms they did not yet control. This would not be the case in a second referendum, where the Scottish Parliament controls its own franchise.

I think it is reasonable to expect that the first referendum should set a precedent: the franchise in an independence referendum is a matter for the Scottish Parliament, even more so than it was in 2012-13, since its powers in this area more generally have grown, rather than shrunk in recent years. There should, therefore, be no legal impediment to the enfranchisement of EU nationals or indeed anyone else, should a second independence referendum come along.

However, it is possible that the UK Government might, this time around, demand that conditions should be imposed on any re-grant of the power to hold a referendum. The possibility of conditions being imposed this time in such a way as they were not last time has been raised by David Torrance in his article in The Herald today. He takes the view that the UK Government might insist upon restrictions both on the timing of a referendum and possibly even the question asked. Last time there was a time limit of about two years, within which there was total discretion to hold or not hold the referendum, and the question was set by the Scottish Parliament in consultation with the Electoral Commission. For my own part I am ambivalent about the virtues of anything that could be seen as a political fix-up, on the part of either side in these areas.

These conditions might, however, include constraints on the franchise. This is therefore a potential bone of contention. If HM Government were to insist on excluding EU citizens from the referendum despite the Scottish Parliament having potentially protected their ordinary voting rights, the question of who has the right to decide the franchise could very easily become the obstacle to agreeing a section 30 order.


I think Neil Lovatt is wrong when he says that, post Brexit, EU nationals "certainly won't" have voting rights in Scotland, let alone in relation to a referendum. Ultimately these are choices that the Scottish Parliament has, by the precedent, been entitled to make. If the UK Government wishes to create problems for itself by insisting on constraints that it did not insist upon last time, that would likely be very politically unwise indeed.

Leaving the EU does, however, re-open the question of voting rights generally in the United Kingdom. As part of the emerging conflict of political cultures, the franchise is a possible avenue where this "open v closed" society dynamic could come into life. It will say a lot about our country whether this change leads us to include or exclude people from our political processes. One might even say this is the real mark of who exactly it is that is "Taking Back Control".



    Thanks Graeme and good blog. I accept entirely that they position could change and that the UK could continue to allow EU nationals to continue to vote (as you hopefully appreciate I support) post Brexit. I personally find it very difficult to see that happening given the Brexit rhetoric, but it clearly is a possibility.

    However am I not correct in saying that the Scottish Parliament does not have competence over the franchise when it comes to referenda that are not in the legislative competence of the Parliament (see 3(4)(a))?

    I would therefore suggest that it will be the British government that will make this call and with no Liberal Democrats in the cabinet (as there was last time) I would have thought that the probability of the UK enabling the EU nationals to vote would be next to nil. I accept that is not the same probability as "certainly won't" but that's the restrictions of Twitter for you!

    1. You have misinterpreted what the Scotland Act 2016 does.

      When the Scotland Act 1998 was enacted, Schedule 5 Head B3 did, broadly speaking, two things:

      1. Prohibit the Scottish Parliament from legislating in relation to elections to the Westminster, European and Scottish Parliaments, and the legislation that regulates them

      2. Altering the franchise for local authority elections

      Notice that under s11 Scotland Act 1998, the franchise for Holyrood is defined with direct reference to the franchise for local authority elections. So if 2. had not been reserved, the Scottish Parliament would have been able, indirectly, to change its own franchise.

      s3(3) of the Scotland Act 2016 changes the first part, by removing restrictions on legislating in relation to Scottish Parliamentary elections.

      s3(4) of the Scotland Act 2016 changes the second part. It removes this second restriction, namely "the franchise at local government elections". This gives effect to the Smith Commission's commitment that the Scottish Parliament gets to set its own franchise and those of local elections.

      What follows after is not a restriction on the franchise. It is a restriction on how the Scottish Parliament exercises its powers in relation to its and local government Elections.

      Section 3(4)(a) prohibits the Scottish Parliament from legislating to combine a poll that falls outside of its legislative competence with any other election: i.e. to make arrangements to have them held on the same day. This is to stop the Parliament from shifting its own or local authority elections in order to influence the result of a referendum (on whatever issue) that they themselves did not have the power to call. An example of this might be if the UK Government holds a referendum on the Brexit deal and it could be shown that such a referendum was not within the Scottish Parliament's competence, Holyrood would not be allowed to move its own election to the same day.

      The use of this phrase "the combination of polls" also appears in s12A of the Scotland Act 2016. This provision gives the Secretary of State for Scotland the power to make provision about holding Scottish Parliamentary elections, by-elections etc on the same day as other UK elections that don't fall under the Scottish Parliament's control. The reservation exists in part to stop the Scottish Parliament overriding the function of the Secretary of State.

      That part of the Scotland Act 2016 does not place any restriction on the franchise of any referendum. If a referendum is outwith the competence of the Parliament it is not allowed to hold it anyway, let alone set a franchise in relation to it.

      The setting of the franchise for a referendum held by the Scottish Parliament is a matter for the Scottish Parliament except to the extent that specific legal provisions restrict their legislative competence. Last time the UK Government placed no restrictions on the franchise in their s30 Order and it would be a highly dangerous approach were they to impose such restrictions this time. Clearly they have the legal power to do this, because Westminster is a sovereign legislature, but that is not the same as saying that they will insist on setting the franchise rather than letting Holyrood do it themselves.

      The position would be even less tenable now than it was then to impose a restriction, because the Scottish Parliament has assumed more control over the franchise in plebiscites taking place only in Scotland since the 2014 referendum. The issue isn't one of substance, but of process. The reason the Tories excluded EU nationals from the EU referendum was because they maintained the franchise should be whatever the Westminster franchise was. It was a question of consistency, not withdrawal of rights.

    2. I should add to clarify:

      Head B3 was amended by a series of s30 Orders, in order to allow the Scottish Parliament to lower the franchise before the 2016 elections, despite the fact that the Scotland Act 2016 had not yet passed.

      This is why s3(4)(a) of the Scotland Act 2016 says:

      "Omit the words from “The franchise at local government elections” to the end of the Exceptions" rather than just "Omit the words "The franchise at local government elections".

      The temporary powers granted were more specific and restricted to things like lowering the voting age. The 2016 Act's provisions, however, on coming into force, give the Scottish Parliament complete freedom over its franchise, subject to other restrictions like its requirement that legislation is compatible with Convention rights and EU law.